The Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms
Throughout the entirety of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift critiques and indicts a broad swath of the social and cultural practices of eighteenth-century England. Virtually none of the British institutions were left unscathed by Swift’s keen satirical analysis. In keeping with the comprehensive scope of the journey that the narrative purportedly recounts, Gulliver’s Travels mockingly challenges everything from empirical scientific inquiry to the concept of the monarchy. In the novel, the satirical action often focuses on highly specific grievances that Swift has with particular aspects of British politics and governance.
However, in the fourth section of the narrative, Swift turns his attention to larger questions of human nature. The sequences involving the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms transcend the highly specific parameters of the previous sections. However, although the sweep of Swift’s satirical gaze is much broader in the sections involving the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms, the insights conveyed through his critique are no less pointedly accurate.
Indeed, for modern readers who do not have the benefit of a shared historical context within which to glean the subversive meaning of much of Swift’s more specific political satire, these two sections present some of the most profoundly meaningful scenes in the narrative. The lessons conveyed through Gulliver’s encounters with the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms transcend Swift’s era and reveal timeless truths about society and human behavior. This analysis will discuss the social critique that Swift offers through Gulliver’s experiences with the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms.
It is immediately clear that the great majority of the human “types” that Swift parodies throughout the entirety of Gulliver’s Travels are portrayed in a negative light, encapsulating various aspects of eighteenth-century political, cultural, or social life with which Swift finds fault. However, the only major section of the narrative that is devoted exclusively to non-human characters is the sequence involving Gulliver’s experience with the horse-like Houyhnhnms.